Directed by Marc Forster
There are two Christopher Robins: Christopher Robin Milne, son of A. A. Milne the author of Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and Christopher Robin, a character in those books (as well as in two collections of his father’s poetry). The character was based on the real boy and most of the other characters in the books, including Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger, were based on his stuffed toys. The settings were also based on real places around the family’s home.
The relationship between those two Christopher Robins was a strained one, as the real one came to feel that the fictional one had exploited his childhood. The (better) film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017) explores that duality and the childhood stress caused by the extraordinary success of the books.
The new film “Christopher Robin” is not about the real person but is, instead, a fiction based on what kind of person the character might have grown up to be. It’s not the first sequel to revisit the character, the 2009 book Return to the Hundred Acre Wood considered Christopher Robin’s return home during his holidays from boarding school (the real Christopher Robin also went to boarding school). But this is different in imagining an adult Christopher Robin – and that’s a problem.
The similarities between the younger Christopher Robins is marked, with C. R. Milne serving as the model for not only the character as written by his father but also as drawn by E. H. Shepard. And the animals, events, and places were all a reflection or an extension of the young boy’s life. And so it bears (!) consideration to what extent the adult character in the new film should or shouldn’t also resemble the adult real person, given that the character wouldn’t have existed without the person and they’ve existed in parallel previously.
As it turns out, they both went to war, both married, and both had a single daughter – which seems a little too similar to be entirely coincidental. But the similarities end there. In real life, C. R. Milne caused an even deeper rift in his family by marrying his first cousin to his parents’ great consternation, he opened and ran a bookstore with his wife before becoming an author himself, and their daughter Clare was born with cerebral palsy. Clare spent her own adulthood running an eponymous charity focused on that disorder.
In the film, Christopher Robin, played by Ewan MacGregor, seems to have no concerns in his life other than those associated with his miserable job as the efficiency manager for a luggage company, a misery that rubs off on his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). And while the film doesn’t attempt to completely mirror C. R. Milne’s adult life, and one wonders what kind of rights would have been necessary had that even been desired by the filmmakers, it’s similar enough to wonder why the topic of disability has been so thoroughly expunged, especially given the potential for a positive and uplifting tale of a father and daughter re-encountering his old childhood playmates, who presumably would have been delightfully supportive and non-judgmental.
Instead, the film is a dull story about a man so beaten down that he’s forgotten how or where to find joy in his life, and who proceeds to suck the joy out of the lives of those around him. And the inclusion of Winnie the Pooh and friends does little to overcome that tonally, especially as even that isn’t especially upbeat, at least at first. It’s hard to determine who the film is really aimed at – it seems too dark and gloomy for young children to really enjoy, despite a PG rating obviously aimed at them. After all, Dad worrying about firing people at work to cut costs isn’t exactly a humdinger of a yarn for the kids. If anything, it seems more suited to the overworked parents than to the kids they might take with them. Even if all of the background and the comparisons are of no interest, it’s still a film that delivers too little, too late – for a bear of very little brains or for very little brains to bear.
It’s another film intent on cashing in on the brand equity of classic characters, while attempting to transform them in the manner of the modern action genre film, albeit somewhat less actiony here. On that level it might even soften my previous reactions to the recent film adaptations of the Paddington and Peter Rabbit stories. They’re all wonderful characters, that I grew up with, but none of them were action heroes or likely to engage in car chases – unless perhaps there were marmalade sandwiches, carrots, or pots of honey to secure. And it’s not that the new film even ruins the central animal characters, they’re mostly suitably portrayed (although a couple seem more animal and less stuffing), but it certainly does a number on Christopher Robin.
Then again, C. R. Milne reportedly spent much of his life upset about Christopher Robin. His father had a hard time finding equally successful alternate subject matter and worried about what he had done to his son. His mother didn’t speak to him for years. And even the illustrator E. H. Shepard found his work on A. A. Milne’s books cast a long shadow. So maybe “Christopher Robin” sets an appropriate tone after all – attempting as it does to follow a tough act.
At the other end of the scale, both in mood and in content, is “The Spy Who Dumped Me” starring Mila Kunis as the unknowing ex-girlfriend of an international spy (Justin Theroux). She and her bff (Kate McKinnon) get roped into delivering a secret package that pretty much everybody else in the film desperately wants. Along the way they kill a fairly enormous number of people, in assorted improbable ways, and repeatedly lampoon toxic masculinity. It’s not an especially great movie, nor does it ever pretend to be with some of the worst continuity work of recent memory, but it’s fun and vulgar in a fun way, in all the right amounts to do what it sets out to do.
“The Darkest Minds” is another teen fiction about a dystopian future in which kids are pitted against adults. A mysterious disease has hit young people, simultaneously causing a range of special powers (extreme intelligence, telekinesis, manipulation of electricity, flame-thrower breath, and Force-like mind manipulation) and apparently instantly curing all known forms of acne. Naturally all of this unnerves the adults, and the audience members who like coherent details, and the kids are separated from their parents and sent to detention facilities (like that would ever happen). It’s another “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Maze Runner” kind of story but coming in at the low end of that budget range and below them all in terms of compelling story, name recognition, charisma (at least so far), or intrigue.